Ever heard of the Zero, kid?
October 3, 2006 5:44 PM   Subscribe

Ignorantstudentfilter: What are some major cultural achievements or scientific discoveries that do not originate from white Europeans/Americans?

I'm carefully picking my way through a freshman composition whose author claims that "Whites" are dominant because most "significant cultural and scientific accomplishments" were made by "European culture." I won't even get into his comments about welfare and rap music.

Part of me just wants to smack the student down with a bad grade and go watch Veronica Mars, but I actually like (ok, don't hate) this kid, and I want to show him why his generalizations are not just offensive but incorrect. I've got a list started (algebra, astronomy), but I'd like to have as many examples as possible, especially since he's probably inclined to dismiss me as yet another liberal teacher pushing my politically correct agenda.
posted by bibliowench to Society & Culture (88 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
The wheel comes to mind immediately.
posted by solid-one-love at 5:50 PM on October 3, 2006

Gunpowder, paper, writing.
posted by ludwig_van at 5:51 PM on October 3, 2006

posted by matildaben at 5:51 PM on October 3, 2006

Oops, sorry, didn't read your title.
posted by matildaben at 5:52 PM on October 3, 2006

The Four Great Chinese Inventions: The compass, gunpowder, papermaking, and printing
posted by rabbitsnake at 5:52 PM on October 3, 2006

Magnetic compasses (China), agriculture (Sumeria), paper (China and Egypt), steel weapons (Middle East).
posted by solid-one-love at 5:54 PM on October 3, 2006

posted by fvox13 at 5:57 PM on October 3, 2006

You might want to point out to him that before the Romans an other Mediterranean civilizations conquered most of Europe and Asia, the native inhabitants were little better than the natives of North America were when the Europeans first came, which was looooong after the Norse came.
posted by ChazB at 6:00 PM on October 3, 2006

Sounds like a kid who needs to read Guns, Germs, and Steel.
posted by russilwvong at 6:03 PM on October 3, 2006 [1 favorite]


(I can't wait to see Veronica Mars.)
posted by catburger at 6:03 PM on October 3, 2006

Good action movies.
posted by mkultra at 6:06 PM on October 3, 2006

A slight derail. What major scientific breakthroughs or technologies have been made in the past 500 years that haven't been by whites?
posted by sien at 6:10 PM on October 3, 2006

posted by Loto at 6:10 PM on October 3, 2006

The square root, negative numbers, and the decimal system were all found in India. Ditto the circumference of the earth, and Romans used to use Indian armor in their weapons.

Also, what is widely considered to be the first true novel was written in Japan.
posted by anjamu at 6:12 PM on October 3, 2006

Best answer: Europe and the US kick into high gear culturally and technologically around the end of the 17th Century. If you look at the last 300 years or so, what your student says is actually pretty much true.

Before that, however, it's much less clear. The Chinese are the source of many very important inventions and discoveries: paper, printing, gunpowder, the compass, the blast furnace, for instance. Classic Arabic culture was responsible for major advances in mathematics and science. (As you mention, algebra, for instance.)

It's not really possible to ascribe astronomy to any single source; humans everywhere have always studied the sky. But that's if you use the term "astronomy" very generally; in most places it was actually astrology. Astronomy as a science is indeed European/American, and arguably begins with Kepler.

It's dangerous to make too many generalizations about this kind of thing. One of the major centers of ancient learning was Alexandria, in Egypt. But despite the location and the genetic makeup of most of the inhabitants, Alexandria was a Greek city (established by Alexander the Great) ruled by the Ptolemies, descendants of the Greek governor Alexander put in charge of Egypt after Greek conquest. Ptolemaic rule over Egypt continued until the Romans took over the place. So is Alexandria an "African" source? Well, sort of. Is it Greek? Yeah, sort of. Was it later Arab? Well, yeah, sort of.

Moving forward, however, and beginning around the year 1700, it really is the case that all of culture, technology, and science largely become centered in Europe and North America, and the primary reason is advances in communications and transportation technology. And because accumulation of knowledge is fundamentally exponential, for a number of reasons, those 300 years are responsible for more science and invention than all of human history before that time.

So I'm not really sure that your student is actually wrong.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 6:12 PM on October 3, 2006

Best answer: Based on your description of what was said I'm not sure I see how listing a bunch of achievements by non-whites necessarily disproves his point. There may be a case for saying that European accomplishments have outpaced non-European accomplishments but that doesn't prove that Europeans are inherently superior, it could just mean that non-whites/Europeans were not able to keep up because of racist oppression, denial of opportunity, etc. Now the part about rap/welfare, I can't help you with that one.
posted by mattholomew at 6:13 PM on October 3, 2006


Wait, what counts as white?
posted by thirteenkiller at 6:19 PM on October 3, 2006

I read something about an African city having the first indoor running water. Sorry I can't cite the data.

Arabic numerals? They're not exactly anglo.

To add to solid-one-love, BEER! (that's Sumeria, right?)

Great question, and you sound like a great educator. I'll ask my wife if she can think of any.
posted by snsranch at 6:21 PM on October 3, 2006

I read something about an African city having the first indoor running water. Sorry I can't cite the data.

Mohenjo Daro, maybe?
posted by croutonsupafreak at 6:26 PM on October 3, 2006

Are you including architecture in cultural achievements? Angkor Watt, Machu Picchu, the Great Wall...
posted by t0astie at 6:26 PM on October 3, 2006

Jazz, blues, rock and roll, a bazillion different worthwhile cuisines, politically effective non-violent protests...
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 6:28 PM on October 3, 2006

Best answer: It seems like it'd be pretty hard to argue against the "most significant cultural and scientific accomplishments were made by European culture" part. For every invention you name, he'll probably be able to name something else, and the fact that you're asking this question suggests that you'll run out of stuff to say before he does.

It might be better to respond more broadly to his argument. For instance, who or what defines cultural and scientific significance? Does scientific/cultural advancement lead to dominance or the other way around?
posted by Espy Gillespie at 6:28 PM on October 3, 2006

Steven. In the 200 years before 1700 what was invented by non-whites?

What were the last major inventions by non Europeans?
posted by sien at 6:28 PM on October 3, 2006

Salon had a good article on the Arab world's contributions to Western culture: A is for Arabs
posted by srah at 6:36 PM on October 3, 2006

Sien, since you and I probably don't agree on what's "major" I probably can't answer to your satisfaction. There was still yeasty intellectual stuff going on in the Arab world as late as the 1500's; they didn't start to stagnate until about 400 years ago.

What were the last major inventions by nonEuropeans? Well, the flat panel LCD color display (Japanese/Korean) has to rate right up there, I would think.

And since the US isn't "European", I'd include semiconductors and plastics.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 6:38 PM on October 3, 2006

The Japanese (Sony) were also responsible for the videocassette recorder.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 6:39 PM on October 3, 2006

A bunch of critically important techniques still current in chemistry were invented by an Arab (or maybe he was Persian). Maybe that counts as "white", though. Anyway, Jabir ibn Hayyan was probably the first person to think systematically about chemistry.

But I also think SCDB has a point. The world we live in is a product of the Enlightenment, and the Enlightenment, for whichever reasons, happened in Europe and North America.

Espy Gillespie also has a great point. I think that the why is a fascinating question here. It begins to be answered by some of the arguments in Guns, Germs, and Steel, sure. But it's a really rich question.

sien writes "What were the last major inventions by non Europeans?"

Well, it depends on what you mean by major. If you want to be facile about it, I'd look at Tanaka's 2002 Nobel Prize for MALDI mass spec. Or maybe Nakamura's blue LED.
posted by mr_roboto at 6:41 PM on October 3, 2006

You could use Wikipedia's list of Nobel laureates by country, although it's still dominated by Americans and Europeans.
posted by Durin's Bane at 6:41 PM on October 3, 2006

first library? First university?

I found this website (slow, and horrible in appearance) which has some items of Arab/Muslim contribution to many fields:
posted by burhan at 6:44 PM on October 3, 2006

Best answer: He claims that most "significant cultural... accomplishments" were made by "European culture"? This doesn't make the slightest bit of sense, unless he's claiming that European culture is mostly responsible for the character of every other culture (including American). Here are some ideas:

Ask him what "significant contributions" he's made to either culture or science. Ask him what contributions his parents have made, or their parents, and so on.

Ask him to justify his claim by performing a quantitative analysis, comparing, for example, the number of priceless works of pottery made by "Europeans" to everybody else in the history of the world.

Point out that Arabs are Caucasian, that the "European" model doesn't seem to take this into account, and ask him to clarify his definition of "White."

Ask him to carefully define "dominant" as well as "significant cultural/scientific achievement" in such a way that an alien could look at his definitions and some country/innovation and decide if it was dominant/a significant achievement.

Ask him to compare the relative military power of the United States and Canada (corrected for population). Ask him to explain the disparity in terms of his "Whiteness" model.

Have him do the same, but with Sweden and China.

He's performing an armchair analysis of the world. Just demand some rigor out of the kid. People come into subjects with all kinds of misconceptions--from anthropology to English to physics. It's always difficult to break misconceptions, and some are more resilient to change than others. Forcing him to look at the logical implications of his misconceptions might help a lot in getting him to abandon them.
posted by dsword at 6:45 PM on October 3, 2006 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: Based on your description of what was said I'm not sure I see how listing a bunch of achievements by non-whites necessarily disproves his poin

I agree – I don't credit myself with the ability to change his lifetime of beliefs in a few well-chosen comments, and I really don't think that that's my job. I can't tell him, as a writing teacher, that his racial views are wrong, but I can tell him that his statement is an overgeneralization, and as such, it's neither logically nor rhetorically sound. I want him to see that his tone immediately shuts me down, as a reader, and I stop taking him seriously when he makes broad statements like that because they don’t' jibe with my experience.

But I admit, I did need to brainstorm a response. My initial thought went along the lines of "algebra, jazz, um . . . buncha things you can do with a peanut . . .," which shows the limits of my education. Most of my learning is framed in terms of early-modern-and-later European culture, but I wanted more examples of how some of the basics of our knowledge (and also recent technology – I hadn't thought of that) doesn't have European roots.
posted by bibliowench at 6:45 PM on October 3, 2006

Best answer: I'm carefully picking my way through a freshman composition whose author claims that "Whites" are dominant because most "significant cultural and scientific accomplishments" were made by "European culture." I won't even get into his comments about welfare and rap music.

This is a rather strange point. What does he mean by "dominant"? Dominant in U.S. culture? His central problem is trying to tie "European culture" with "being white". I think what he really meant is "British culture", after all the United States is an offshoot of England, and we share a common culture, and it was in that common culture that the scientific revolution really got started.

But today, there is no connection between "western culture" and white people. Look at Japan, for example, or Brazil.

Furthermore, within the United States, African Americans or people of other races have only been allowed access to the same education and opportunity as white people in the past, say 30 or 40 years or so. That's not very long at all.

Trying to compare the success of contemporary African Americans or other Minorities, within the greater culture of the United States to the success of British or European culture compared to other countries historically is simply idiotic.

Also, look at the British class system. Even while England achieved great success, other English stayed low on the totem poll. And class was primarily hereditary. Even though the "low" classes and "high" classes shared the same general culture, their children experienced vastly different levels of dominance.

It's no secret that whites and other minorities started off in different "classes" in the United States, and that for a long time those class distinctions were enforced by law.

You mentioned him complaining about "welfare". The United States has not had a universal welfare program in over ten years. If he is complaining about welfare today, you should fail him for that.
posted by delmoi at 6:49 PM on October 3, 2006

Can you assign 1491 for the next writing assignment?

Brazilians are taught that Alberto Santos Dumont was first in flight, rather than the Wright Brothers. The debate rages, to this day. Every society has its own version of history- before you can get outside of the comfortable bubble in which you were educated, you have to understand that there is a bubble, and that you're in it.
posted by ambrosia at 6:52 PM on October 3, 2006

You could tell him that a lot of the important Greek texts were saved from being lost during the Middle Ages by Arab scholars, who later translated them back into European languages (and, if I remember correctly, helped spark the Renaissance). You could also try telling him that very few "significant cultural and scientific accomplishments" are created by a single culture (or person from a culture) at a definite time, but are instead the result of many people, many times, and many cultures. You could try to stress the interconnectedness of the world, today and in the past, and how no culture exists in a vacuum.
posted by MadamM at 6:56 PM on October 3, 2006

For mine I would seriously get him to look at the influence of Islamic science around the mediterranean in the 11th century. Much of the ground work for fields like Astronomy and architecture were devised at this time, in an era when most of Europe was emerging from the Dark Ages..

European intellectualism didn't really take off until the Renaisaance and the subsequent Enlightenment. Whether this would all fit into his definition of 'Whites' vs 'Black' would of course be taken in the context that he wrote.
posted by TheOtherGuy at 7:02 PM on October 3, 2006

Yeah, on further reflection, I think that I'd just say that painting with an overly broad brush destroys his credibility with the reader, and from a composition perspective, his message (whatever it was) is utterly lost when careless language diverts the reader's attention from his message.
posted by ambrosia at 7:03 PM on October 3, 2006

Koreans apparently invented cast metal movable type in 1403, more than a hundred years prior to Gutenberg.
posted by johngumbo at 7:07 PM on October 3, 2006

Sushi. Most other cultural achievements would be meaningless without sushi.
posted by ontic at 7:11 PM on October 3, 2006

Best answer: Most of my learning is framed in terms of early-modern-and-later European culture, but I wanted more examples of how some of the basics of our knowledge (and also recent technology – I hadn't thought of that) doesn't have European roots.

The basic thing is, after the scientific revolution, centered in England, (as well as France and Germany, basically) and created much of the modern world we live in today. The fact that the European powers used all their advances to try to subjugate the rest (and then try to destroy each other) doesn't really help.

So much wealth and power is concentrated in the United States, the former colonial powers, and Japan. Japan has only been an innovator for the past fifty years or so, a time where most advances are done by large groups of people. That said, it's often mentioned how the Japanese don't produce a lot of truly innovative things, rather then refinements of western innovations (the NES compared the Atari 2600 for example).

And another thing is that many of the worlds best and brightest actually go to graduate school in the United States, and usually stay and work here. So we basically import the cream of the crop of the rest of the world. Google is a good example of something created in the 'culture' of the united states, but created by a forien graduate student (along with an American). Hotmail was founded by an Indian.

The key flaw in this guys reasoning is that he's attempting to bind "European culture" with "white". People of all races can come to the United States and flourish, thanks to the civil rights movement.

Another thing to think about: unlike most of the rest of the world, Japan adopted western culture on it's own, creating a parliament and judicial system in the 1800s. Long before most other non-European countries, and they became a world power by the beginning of the 1900s. After the war, Japan became the second largest economy in the world (much of this had to do with the U.S. government's trade policy, wherein a conscious decision was made to sacrifice the U.S. economy in order to produce a 'jewel of capitalist potential' but that's a whole other issue)

Of course, most racists now claim that white people and the "Japanese race" are at the top, better then all others. Why else would Hitler have allied with them?

But anyway, before the renaissance and the enlightenment, the center of culture and learning in the world was the Arab caliphate and the Chinese empire. Some historians believe that if the Chinese had been more adventurous they might have colonized North America or even Europe at their height, when they were way ahead.

But really there hasn't been much time for other regions to adopt our forms of government and so on, and produce a lot of innovations, but that has nothing to do with their race only their location.
posted by delmoi at 7:11 PM on October 3, 2006 [1 favorite]

Writing has been invented several times, and I don't think any of the inventors would be classed as "white" by your student: Chinese and Mayan (perhaps preceded by the Olmec) come to mind as examples.
posted by anadem at 7:14 PM on October 3, 2006

Sorry to derail, but I prefer to keep my eyes on the greatest achievements of Western society over the past century. My list includes:
1. Militarism
2. Nationalism
3. Industrialism
4. World War I
5. World War II (I'm counting the Japanese as Western for this one since they were consciously aping the West's achievements in 1, 2, and 3).
6. Stalinism
7. The Holocaust
8. The threat of global thermonuclear war
9. Global warming

All told, it's been an outstanding 100 years of Western achievement. bibliowench, maybe your ignoramus student will agree?
posted by hhc5 at 7:15 PM on October 3, 2006 [2 favorites]

Best answer: You should say "Can you give me anything to support this assertion? If not, it's just a grand empty claim and doesn't belong in your paper. Try to make more modest and specific claims, which you will have an easier time defending in the space you have."

(I get this kind of baloney all the time in essays, and that's the response. Yes, maybe he could write a dissertation and make a case for that claim, addressing counterexamples, but as it stands he's just throwing around big ideas he has no support for.)

For example, "most significant cultural achievements" is a pretty empty phrase. What counts? Is it just the stuff that we westerners have think is important in the western tradition? There great buildings, literature/oral traditions, religious and mystic and philosophical traditions, holidays, rituals, folk medical knowledge, knowledge of what and how to cook or weave into cloth etc. outside of the western tradition; is that stuff cultural acheivements or not? Also, what counts as part of "the western tradition"? Does Egypt count? Colonialism, empires, cultural exchange and the interconnectedness of the world especially over the last 500 or so years makes this an even-less-meaningful assertion.

Significant cultural achievements that did not originate in Europe (or were independently discovered elsewhere): Monotheism. Law. Writing. Calendars and detailed astronomical tracking. Navigation and boat-building. The wheel. Domestication of animals and crops. Pottery. Porcelain. Ironwork. Basketry. Tanning hides. Textile processing. Mathematics. Glass. Printing. Vaccination. Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam...

Here's a timeline with more ideas.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:17 PM on October 3, 2006

hhc5, you're mostly ok there except you reference to the role of Japan in WWII (and omiting it from WWI). In both cases it was not their "aping the west" so much as the combination of a deeply inbred, violent, imperialistic culture (one that had been that way for hundreds of years) and industrial power.
posted by Riemann at 8:02 PM on October 3, 2006

Edit: I guess Imperial Japan would be relevant as an example that whlie "white europeans" don't have a monopoly on cultural achievements, they don't have a monopoly on being utter bastards either.
posted by Riemann at 8:04 PM on October 3, 2006

posted by rbs at 8:14 PM on October 3, 2006

Might be interesting to ask yourself, what if he had written it the other way around, saying that non-Western cultures were superior? What would be your concerns with the paper then?
posted by mattholomew at 8:20 PM on October 3, 2006

Well, my first response was 'fire,' but I'm an archaeologist, so all this modern stuff goes right by me. Some of the stuff dsword brings up I think is important - he's working on the crappy old model of race that still permeates much of the world. We try to beat it out of students in Anth 100 by forcing them to define race by other means, such as blood type or presence/absence of lactose genes.

Doesn't work. Doesn't help that today, in 2006, old-ass museum docents still tell kids there are four races, to the shock and horror of us younger workers.

Anyhow, how do you define a cultural achievement? Seems to me that rap/hip-hop sells more than other types of music. And it has an interesting lineage to Jamaican oral tradition. Western ideas of achievement often decline oral tradition in favor of literary traditions, which has been the cause of the loss of much cultural information over the years as older anthropological studies poo-poohed that form of knowledge.
posted by cobaltnine at 8:24 PM on October 3, 2006

For a recent example, try:
  • Dolly or Snuppy
  • The Poincarè Conjecture

    For older stuff, consider that many of the scientists in the manhattan project were quite recent immigrants from Germany.

  • posted by Mr. Gunn at 8:26 PM on October 3, 2006

    Sorry, I misread the question...the Snuppy point holds, though.
    posted by Mr. Gunn at 8:29 PM on October 3, 2006

    It might be better to respond more broadly to his argument. For instance, who or what defines cultural and scientific significance? Does scientific/cultural advancement lead to dominance or the other way around?

    Espy Gillespie has it right. It's going to be difficult to argue with him when the terms are already set against non-white non-Europeans: he (or a larger "Western" culture) gets to decide what counts as scientific/technological achievement (and, moreover, that technological developments are "achievements" or "progress" at all).
    posted by maxreax at 8:40 PM on October 3, 2006

    Corn, potatoes, and about 4/7ths of all the food we eat comes from Native America. Most of the rest comes from the fertile crescent or Asia. So: food.

    The lanteen sail, which allows one to tack against the wind and made the age of exploration possible, was invented by Arabs.

    Smallpox innoculation was developed in Africa before it apparently independent discovery in England.

    Good luck, and I lilke your atitude of teaching the kid something instead of just slapping him down. You are a good teacher.
    posted by LarryC at 8:48 PM on October 3, 2006

    How about Christianity?
    posted by acoutu at 9:00 PM on October 3, 2006

    Best answer: I think the best thing for a teacher in your position to do is, rather than respond with some list of ah-ha-you-didnt-know-this-did-you-kid non-European achievements that won't persuade him of anything, and that he probably already knows about and discounts, help him say what he wants to say more effectively.

    What exactly was the assignment? What is his argument? That whites are superior? That "European culture" is superior? As measured how? How could he improve his composition in a way that would do more to convince you of his point, however abhorrent you may find it? I think that by approaching the paper in this way, you both win--you provide him constructive criticism on his composition (and in the course of doing so, point out the flaws of his argument), as opposed to a lecture on the PC worldview, and he learns how to improve his writing.
    posted by Brian James at 9:39 PM on October 3, 2006 [2 favorites]

    Monday, September 25 – Tuesday, September 26
    Commanded by the Qur'an to seek knowledge and examine nature for signs of the Creator, the Islamic world was synonymous with learning and science for five hundred years. IN the twenty-first century, the relationship between science and religion generates much debate amoung Muslims. Chris Tenove asks if there is a contradiction between Islam and modern science.

    I know this isn't really helpful, but I listened to some of the above program on CBC Radio the other day and one of the points they made was that an Islamic scholar described the flow of blood some 400 years before the white guy who got the credit. In other words, I bet lots of the "discoveries" credited to the "superior white guys" were possibly made earlier, but our (white) history is incredibly biased. Maybe he could do a project on bias and history?
    posted by stray at 9:54 PM on October 3, 2006

    Best answer: "I want to show him why his generalizations are not just offensive but incorrect"

    Be very very careful here. By all means, engage the student in argument, by all means point of both his misconceptions and how his generalizations weaken his rhetoric.

    But while the student may be incorrect, he's likely not trying to be offensive; he's (probably) tyring to do (what for him at the freshman level is) academic work without making ritual obeisance to the reigning PC gods.

    And that sort of fearlessness, that willingness to follow truth (as he sees it) is good, and valuable, and should be encouraged.

    When I was in college, many years ago, my ideology was not in the academic mainstream. I recall one professor, well-known for being pretty much on the "opposite" side of the political spectrum from me, and my initial nervousness that he might (even if only unconsciously) penalize me for not sharing his opinions.

    To the contrary, Peter (the prof), while ever a strong and effective advocate for his ideological beliefs, made me feel welcome and utterly at liberty to advocate mine as strongly as I could (in a graduate class, no less, when I was an undergrad), endeavoring not to convert me to his beliefs but to teach me to become more insightful and adept at my own interpretations as colored by my own worldview.

    Did he challenge my assumptions and interpretations? Of course! Did he encourage me to (as best I could) challenge his, call him wrong, argue my point? Of course! That's what made him a excellent professor and a remarkable man.

    IWhile we've long since fallen out of touch, I've always really liked and remembered and respected him for that. He was a great prof, not just because he made us all photocopies of his published book rather than requiring us to buy them, or for introducing me to Tom Lehrer, but because -- while he held unsparingly to his political views , he held even more strongly to the ethic of being a good and effective and caring teacher to all his students.

    More than a professor, he was a teacher in the most fundamental sense of the word, and a good and gentle man of fervently held beliefs and a razor sharp intelligence. He never let his ideology or his ego get in the way of that.

    I learned a lot from Peter, much of it more fundamental than the subject matter of that grad seminar. I'd have learned a lot less if I felt he was judging me or trying to re-make me in his image, or even tying to "smack down" my misapprehensions -- as wrong as I might have been.

    Don't forget that as a professor, you're an imposing figure of power, able to advancing his academic career or derail it -- especially to a freshman. Nourish that rare student who isn't afraid to speak his truth (what he sees as truth, anyway -- I think he's mostly wrong) to your power.

    Don't misuse your position to smack or humiliate, use it to teach. Maybe you won't change his mind, but by being fair and instructive and not vindicative, you can set a positive example he may use as a guidepost the rest of his life.

    (Incidentally, in case you're wondering, Peter was a Lefty-with-a-Capital-L product of the radical '60s, and I, back then, a braying free-market anti-Communist pro-Thatcher Libertarian ass.)
    posted by orthogonality at 10:25 PM on October 3, 2006 [8 favorites]

    posted by Neiltupper at 10:48 PM on October 3, 2006

    The triangular sail, which only made it possible for whites to go out and exploit the rest of the world, was in fact an invention of the Muslim world.
    posted by gauchodaspampas at 11:25 PM on October 3, 2006

    Steven. Thanks for that. The US is European or Western in my terms.

    The color LCD was first developed in the US according to wikipedia

    This is a difficult argument to deal with. I've gone the algebra, zero and many other things against people but been stumped by the 'well what have non Westerners invented in the past X hundred years".

    The only thing I've been able to argue is that well, times are a changin and there is only 'science' now rather than just 'Western' science and the reality that non-Westerners will develop things. The only thing I could come up with was hotter super-conductors that the Chinese developed.
    posted by sien at 11:26 PM on October 3, 2006

    Maya Indians: The Calendar
    Aztec Indians: Chocolate
    posted by mynameismandab at 11:43 PM on October 3, 2006

    If you're worried about the last hundred years, it's just not at all that the hugely rich countries with good baseline technology, education systems, leisure classes, money to spend on basic science and product development, networks of research universities, etc are the ones making high-tech developments. It's not a matter of cultural or racial superiority, it's a matter of having all the conditions in place to do it. (Just like the Chinese or Arabs in their heydays, or the Mayans, etc)
    posted by LobsterMitten at 11:46 PM on October 3, 2006

    "not at all mysterious that the rich countries"
    posted by LobsterMitten at 11:47 PM on October 3, 2006

    Also, keep in mind that, if he's a freshman just out of high school his assertion is probably related to the criminally limited information passed down to him in high school history classes. Huuuge pro-white majority bias.
    posted by mynameismandab at 11:58 PM on October 3, 2006

    Color TV was invented by Guillermo Gonzalez Camarena from Mexico.
    posted by tremendo at 12:51 AM on October 4, 2006

    orthogonality has eloquently raised my initial response, before I needed to rise to a methodological defense of your student. But more than that, he offers a reminder of why teachers, in the best sense, teach at all. Kudos to him, for his wisdom and recollection shared.

    But bibliowench, your very question fails, in a number of ways, to elicit the goals of scholarship you should be charged with teaching. Your student rises in his assignment, to successfully challenge your assignment and conceptions, and you tell us, a non-scientific cross section of strangers on the Internet, that "... Part of me just wants to smack the student down with a bad grade and go watch Veronica Mars ..."

    You're asking the question in the wrong place. It's a bad question. You may not owe the kid an "A" if you can't refute his facts or premises, but you owe him fair criticism from within your expertise, which may be only rhetoric, and you have to meet him, as his teacher, on that ground.

    In this thread, you've already gotten some pretty specious advice, and mine may be more of the same. For example, as far as we know, both the earliest Viking boats to reach North America, and the earliest Europeans that arrived here, sailed in square-rigged vessels, despite what gauchodaspampas thinks.

    Mark the kid down on unsubstantiated generalizations, poor grammer, failure to cite, or poor research, all of which are the rhetorical tools you are charged with teaching him, as I may incorrectly infer from the brief and incomplete formulation of your question. But if he's challenged you, and driven you to think, grade him up accordingly, too.

    Because it doesn't matter how many footnotes you include, if you can't write to make people stop in their tracks, and think.
    posted by paulsc at 1:35 AM on October 4, 2006 [1 favorite]

    A great deal of what we claim as "White/European" achievement is in fact Jewish achievement. Check the statistics on Nobel prizes.
    posted by Goofyy at 2:02 AM on October 4, 2006

    delmoi: ... look at the British class system. Even while England achieved great success, other English stayed low on the totem poll. And class was primarily hereditary. Even though the "low" classes and "high" classes shared the same general culture, their children experienced vastly different levels of dominance.

    This is an astute point. Your student is trying to set up your standard-issue racial-essentialist argument. Cultural and technological achievements have been dominated by 'white' people; therefore white culture (and, implicitly, white people) are inherently superior.

    You're wanting (I presume) to suggest that historical inequality, class, and racism have something to do with this imbalance. Non-white people are systematically denied entry to positions where they'd be able to make 'significant cultural and scientific achievements' through, well, lack of access to education; poverty; global inequality, and so on.

    You say you're an early modernist. Why not get out your copy of Laslett's World We Have Lost and point out to your student that, up until the late nineteenth century, at least 95% of the population of Europe (all 'white') were denied access to any form of cultural or scientific achievement based on class and hierarchy. (Judging by the fact that they were forced to emigrate to the US, this would almost certainly include all his ancestors.) This mass of people was looked on by the elite as hopelessly irrational, child-like, and, ultimately, inhuman. Who'd have thought—from that elite perspective—that any of them would have anything to offer?

    And yet this had nothing to do with race, and everything to do with entrenched poverty, class prejudice, and the preservation of traditional social attitudes and hierarchies. You could easily draw some analogies between this state of affairs and the colonially derived world systems of global inequality that condemn the majority of 'non-white' people to poverty, illiteracy, and invisibility.
    posted by Sonny Jim at 3:04 AM on October 4, 2006

    mynameismandab, chocolate was at least Mayan, and maybe pre-Mayan, not Aztec.
    posted by shoos at 4:43 AM on October 4, 2006

    Mark the kid down on unsubstantiated generalizations, poor grammar, failure to cite, or poor research, all of which are the rhetorical tools you are charged with teaching him.

    Bears repeating. If he hasn't articulated clearly what his argument actually is, that's another point you can criticize. Use this as a chance to teach him to think better and demonstrate that you, as a representative of the educational establishment are committed to reasoned debate and will not dismiss non-PC arguments out of hand.
    posted by teleskiving at 5:27 AM on October 4, 2006

    As has been pointed out, your student lacks a proper historical perspective. "European culture" has had a fantastic time scientifically and culturally since the renaissance, but thats only 500 years. Tthe 1000 or so years between the end of the roman empire, and the renaissance, Europe was significantly behind China and the Arabs technologically. Cultures have periods of progress, and periods of stagnation.

    I also think its worth pointing out that human achievement is cumilative. My top list of human inventions might be: Fire, tool making, bronze, iron, agriculture, sailing and navigation, writing, mathematics, experiamental science, the steam engine (industrial revolution), and computers. All of these have fundamentally changed the way humans live.
    But each stands upon the previous accomplishments. Without mathematics, we would never have invented the steam engine. Without the industrial revolution, we would have no computers.

    So although "European culture" has made much of the running in recent times, it stands on top of millenia of human developement. Credit for the PC I am writing this on belongs as much to Arab mathematicians as it does to American scientists.
    posted by Touchstone at 6:06 AM on October 4, 2006

    How about every single ceramic process that is currently in use (at least in ceramic production for cultural use), except for salt firing (developed in Germany)?

    The ability to vitrify clay, build kilns, the development of glaze, overglaze, enamel, porcelain. . .all of that happened in Asia, India, Africa and the Middle East. The majority of ceramic technology was figured out long before 'Europe' could be recognized as an entity. Not to mention that most European ceramic processes were (and are still) grounded in efforts to emulate the wares coming from those 'non-white' cultures.

    And the people who lived in North and South America before European intervention had figured out that low-fired clay vessels could be used as refrigerators (through the miracle of condensation) - independent of any influence from the ancient Greeks (who had the same technology).
    posted by dirtmonster at 6:10 AM on October 4, 2006

    Response by poster: Thank you for all for your responses, both those that specifically answered my question and those that challenge my original assumptions. I don't want to lose this student - a common peril at community colleges.

    As I've stated before, I want to address this paper in terms of rhetorical and logical lapses, not ideological ones. I learned my lessons a long time ago that I do not teach ideology 101.

    But for those of you who think that this student was being provocative or insightful by challenging conventional beliefs . . . I'm not seeing that. He argues that he was forced to state that Whites were not superior to other races in high school, and his outspoken beliefs got him in a lot of trouble. He then goes on to state many of these beliefs - minorities, especially blacks, are primarily welfare queens, illiterate rappers, thugs, terrorist - usually while referring to them as "these people." It's a classic "armchair analysis of the world," as dsword says, and probably owes its instigation to mainstream media images and a reaction against high school political correctness.

    He told me, when he handed me this essay, that he was going to offend me. He said it with a smile on his face, but I feel he's being provocative both for the sake of shock value and to test my reaction. On one hand - ok, we're starting a conversation. On the other hand, it's like when my 4-year old puts slugs in my bed. It gets a reaction, not a discussion about mollusks.

    The assignment prompt asked him to examine a time when the student felt he/she had to change some aspect of themselves to conform with a school or work environment. So I have no problem with him discussing how his racial views were not welcome in school. But the paper then veers off into an argument for the superiority of the white race, followed by the usual suspects of stereotypes.

    So if he just wants to get a reaction out of me - Oh, you bad racist boy. You can't say that Don't you know that we love black people! - I don't want to give him that. I want to show him why I don't believe his generalizations are correct - hence the call for examples for one- or on topic, and then maybe direct him back to writing about the conformity of high school.

    When I first read the paper, I realized that he'd caught me - I couldn't write my immediate impressions - not true, generalizations, offensive stereotypes - without proving his point. It's taking me a long time to grade this paper. Usually, I expect students to look at two or three of my comments and go on with their lives, but I know he's going to be interested in my reaction. That's why I wanted to be as informed and specific as I could be with my response.

    I don't know if it'll do any good. And I'm saddened to see this bright, articulate, but lonely student with such a confrontational attitude. But if he wants a reaction, I don't want to give him one. If he wants to start a conversation, I do. And I have a lot more to both work with and think about now.

    And then get back to grading my other 60 papers. My next questions will be "how to I resurrect a 15-year old dissertation so I can get out of the comp mill?"
    posted by bibliowench at 6:39 AM on October 4, 2006

    Response by poster: *my next question after my week's limit is through - I'm not trying to piggyback another query on this thread.
    posted by bibliowench at 6:57 AM on October 4, 2006

    I would look at the Columbian exchange, much of the wealth and prosperity of Europe's last half millenia was essentially piggybacked from the material wealth and knowlege of the western hemisphere. Aside from the obvious wealth in gold and silver that enabled many western government to fund more voyages of discovery and sciences which led to further advances he has probably pointed out to you. There were also the fantastic agricultural products that were brought back across the pacific which exponentially increased the ammount of food availible to Europeans in general and created a healthy society. Who invented corn? Who invented the potato? Tomatoes? Peppers? Who benefited by having new crops that will grow almost anywhere in Europe (potato) that will provide food through the winter, and not be such an apearant target when that army comes forageing through and takes your wheat harvest.
    He needs to consider that before the age of discovery most of Europe was a shit hole, and that it was only after they sailed across the ocean (on those ships of arab design) and started funnelling back the wealth that Europe really got underway.
    posted by BobbyDigital at 7:14 AM on October 4, 2006

    Smelting, hunting, tacos, husbandry, probably weaving and knitting, soap, bread, noodles, cheese, drumming, stringed instruments. You might assign Jared Diamond's Guns Germs and Steel, too. Oh, which reminds me: lapidary. Oh, and irrigation.
    My next questions will be "how to I resurrect a 15-year old dissertation so I can get out of the comp mill?" I think you know the answer... buckle down and stop spending so much time on AxMe!
    posted by DenOfSizer at 9:10 AM on October 4, 2006

    I have my own pet theory that electronica music owes as much to Carribbean dub/dancehall (and older forms) as it does to the synth/house music born of a white, western pop hegemony.

    Also, you can take a look at Timbuktu.
    posted by cowbellemoo at 9:30 AM on October 4, 2006

    "most significant cultural achievements"

    Huh? Probably Chilean people had the biggest contribution to Chilean culture. Probably Americans has the biggest contribution to American culture. But to claim that one group has more significant culture than another? That doesn't make sense to me at all.
    posted by raedyn at 9:39 AM on October 4, 2006

    I have my own pet theory that electronica music owes as much to Carribbean dub/dancehall (and older forms) as it does to the synth/house music born of a white, western pop hegemony.

    I don't have a cite for you, but when I was in college, we discussed this very thing in an ethnomusicology course on Carribean music. You're not alone.
    posted by mkultra at 10:08 AM on October 4, 2006

    But bibliowench, your very question fails, in a number of ways, to elicit the goals of scholarship you should be charged with teaching. Your student rises in his assignment, to successfully challenge your assignment and conceptions...

    You're asking the question in the wrong place. It's a bad question. You may not owe the kid an "A" if you can't refute his facts or premises...Mark the kid down on unsubstantiated generalizations... But if he's challenged you, and driven you to think, grade him up accordingly, too....Because it doesn't matter how many footnotes you include, if you can't write to make people stop in their tracks, and think.

    Oh, paulsc, you have so never graded freshman comp essays. Bibliowench has responded eloquently to this already, but I have had this kind of student many times: young, impressed with himself, convinced that he's locked in a lonely clear-sighted struggle against the blinkered zombies of the PC orthodoxy. This belief insulates him against anyone ever, you know, teaching him anything about other cultures or history, because he already knows that it's all "just PC."

    He thinks that anything that goes against the perceived PC orthodoxy is original, challenging, a bold new wave of thought -- but having a knee-jerk "Nuh uh!" reaction doesn't count as an original or interesting idea. ("The earth orbits the sun." "Nuh uh! Everyone thinks that, that's what they told us in high school, but I hated the teachers at my high school, so it must be wrong.")

    And the way this "Nuh uh" gets expressed is usually through unsubstantiated and grandiosely-phrased complete baloney. In freshman comp, you can help students mainly by showing them that baloney isn't enough -- that if they want to be taken seriously, they have to do more than bluster. That's exactly what bibliowench would be doing by just marking the guy down; instead she's taking the extra time -- like a good teacher -- to explain to him why his grandiose unsubstantiated claim is also false.
    posted by LobsterMitten at 10:35 AM on October 4, 2006

    The fact that no-one has come up with something more recent than a few centuries ago sorta feeds into the argument that you are trying to refute. That said, I'm kinda stumped to come up with a fairly recent one. While clearly inventing gunpowder or positional mathematical notation is very important, it doesn't really knock your socks off the same way the transistor or penicillin does. Not me anyway. If the freshman in question limited his terms to say the past 300 years and all europeans it would be a fairly difficult argument to dismiss. After all, 'Science' as a pursuit separate from philosophy only emerged as Europe was beginning its big upswing on the global playing field. Whether this makes the Europeans somehow better, or just the group lucky enough to be in power when the right knowledge was just emerging is a very complicated question that would be very difficult to address, and as such I would think that it would be hard to give a bad grade to someone for having a different opinion than you on the matter.
    posted by UESMark at 1:48 PM on October 4, 2006

    LobsterMitten: I really don't think the situations are analogous. There exists a host of verifiable scientific data which demonstrates that the heliocentric model of the solar sysem is the valid one. There is no truly useful experimental data showing that Europeans are or are not fundamentally better (culturally or biologically if that is even a worthwhile classification) at making scientific achievements. One theory is as good as another. Except of course those theories that imply that ethnicity has an effect on intellectual capacity. Those theories are all wrong.
    posted by UESMark at 1:55 PM on October 4, 2006

    Higher proportion of white people on welfare than black. And how does he explain all Ray Charles, Charley Pride, and George Washington Carver?
    posted by mynameismandab at 5:10 PM on October 4, 2006

    The fact that no-one has come up with something more recent than a few centuries ago sorta feeds into the argument that you are trying to refute.
    No it doesn't, and here's why.

    First of all, suppose the claim is "white people have made all of the significant technological and cultural advances of the last 300 years".
    1. Who counts as white? Do Russians? Do the Irish, the Germans, the Spanish or other immigrant groups that were not originally counted as "white" when they arrived in the US? Do Jews? Do Asian- or African- Americans? Do people who are originally from Asia but now live in the west count? Do Spanish-speaking people living in South and Central America, whose ancestors were Spanish (European), count? Perceived racial groupings are very ad-hoc based on the political needs of the moment, so who counts as "white" varies a lot from time period to time period.

    2. Suppose that we have figured out who counts as white. Does that group also correspond to the group with the most extra money and resources, existing technological and education infrastructure, relatively stable political situation (eg no major ongoing wars on own territory), and other factors that contribute heavily to a society's ability to make technological progress? If so, then even if this group has been the main group making technological progress, we have no evidence that it's because of race, because a more likely hypothesis is that it's because of the material and political conditions in those countries.

    3. For the most part, I don't know who invented what (other than a few very famous cases), and I haven't really spent much time digging into it. I'm guessing the same is true of most of us here. ...But to get us started on inventions or discoveries made by non-"whites" in the last 300 years. Here are just a few, incomplete, lists from Wikipedia, but they're good starting points.
    List of Jewish inventors and List of Jewish American inductees into the Inventor's Hall of Fame
    African American inventors
    List of notable Asian-Americans, see the technology and science sections
    List of notable Hispanic Americans see the science section
    Lists of inventors by nationality (a lot of these lists are very short; bear in mind wikipedia is incomplete by its nature - if you don't believe me look here.)
    Japanese inventors
    Science and technology by country
    Second of all, in response to your comment about my heliocentrism analogy: the analogy is supposed to demonstrate that it is not always rational to have a knee-jerk anti-orthodoxy response. Sometimes the orthodoxy is right. So the mere fact that a belief is orthodox does not demonstrate that tht belief is wrong.

    And I am confused by your claim that there is no data on the question of who invented what. That seems like an issue on which there is plenty of data, and on which complex well-supported historical claims can be made about how material conditions in a given place contributed to the ability of people in that place to invent stuff. But this student isn't offering any of that -- he's just making grand sweeping ill-formulated (and almost certainly false) claims with no evidence.
    posted by LobsterMitten at 5:25 PM on October 4, 2006

    Response by poster: Maybe I was unclear in my original post with the word "dominant." He's not justifying the prevalence of white authority figures - he's saying that the "white race" is inherently superior to others. While I keep myself as politically neutral as possible when grading student essays - and in fact, usually try to keep my assignments away from politics altogether - I'm not dignifying this racist crap as any sort of scholarly inquiry. I asked for specifics here so I could show him how some of his assumptions were wrong (whites must be superior because they invented everything). While I appreciate the variety of viewpoints this question has generated, I resent the accusations that I'm trying to quash this student's intellectual freedom with my own narrow-minded agenda.

    If he wants to study ethnic discrepancies in SAT scores or income or corporate management - well, he'll have to do that in another class, because that's not my subject - but I wouldn't try to stop him. But I'm not teaching him a damn thing if I ignore his blanket statements about the superiority of his "race" and don't show him why these generalizations are both untrue and offensive. (My husband thinks I should read the paper to the class, many of whom are black, and let them critique it. I'm not going to.) He's writing a paper complaining that no one listens to him - shouldn't I let him know why?
    posted by bibliowench at 5:44 PM on October 4, 2006

    Take this opportunity to discuss class warfare and how status or lack thereof affects how people perceive each other. People tend to dismiss people in lower social classes as inferior.

    Sure, White people have made significant scientific contributions, mostly because they made other people tend their crops and feed their cows without pay while they were busy accomplishing things.
    But the message he might be missing is that they did it to other white people, too. Remember the serfs, plebes, and indentured servants? The legacy of White Privilege (closely related to Class Privilege) Continues to oppose whites just like him. It is responsible for the secret societies of the wealthy elite (e.g., Skull & Bones) that exist to keep outsiders out and insiders profitable.

    Because your student is a bigoted young white man at a community college (and not an Ivy League school), it is probably safe to assume that he does not come from a wealthy, affluent, or well-connected family. If any of those assumptions are correct, your pupil has been the victim of White Privilege.
    Put it in a frame of reference he can relate to. It may not change his mind immediately, but it could get him to think about what PC is all about (in my opinion more about being precise than being socially trendy).

    P.S. If white people are so inherently superior, then how does he account for the people on Jerry Springer?

    P.P.S. This is a college composition course. The assertions he is making are at best sweeping generalities and at worst, lies. You need to stress the importance of including reputable, scholarly references to support his theses.

    Or you may decide this is all too much energy to spend on one person who can't back up his statements and flunk him.

    As a person who prejudges other people based on stereotypes and believes that people get what they deserve, he should be able to understand that the consequence for unsubstantiated idiocy in an academic setting is failure.

    P.P.P.S. What makes this student so special that you "don't want to lose him"?
    posted by mynameismandab at 7:23 PM on October 4, 2006

    So basically the burden of proof is on him to back up his assertions.
    posted by mynameismandab at 7:29 PM on October 4, 2006

    shoos, all the information i was able to find puts chocolatl with the Aztecs. So I guess strike 1 for the Almighty Google.
    posted by mynameismandab at 9:52 PM on October 4, 2006

    mynameismandab, the Maya appear to have been consuming chocolate as far back as 500 BC and they may have inherited that from the Olmec before them.
    posted by shoos at 12:53 AM on October 5, 2006

    The assignment prompt asked him to examine a time when the student felt he/she had to change some aspect of themselves to conform with a school or work environment. So I have no problem with him discussing how his racial views were not welcome in school. But the paper then veers off into an argument for the superiority of the white race, followed by the usual suspects of stereotypes.

    Hmm. If I were to critique this student's writings, I'd say something like this:

    It's human nature to feel morally superior to others; pretty much everyone feels that way. But in composing an argument, you need to be careful not to let your feelings affect your objectivity. It's easy to look at evidence selectively, so as to support your pre-judged conclusions.

    For example, comparing white people and black people, it's easy to feel superior to rappers, thugs, and welfare queens. But a black person might argue the moral inferiority of white people by pointing out that it was white people who enslaved black people on a large scale (and subsequently denied them equality), not the other way around.

    At the international level, comparing white nations to non-white nations, you can point to the superior record of technical innovation in the United States as a reason to feel morally superior. But someone in Japan might point out that per capita, the number of engineers in Japan is much higher than in the US. Someone in China might point to the US trade and budget deficits. Someone in Vietnam might point out that they were able to defeat the US despite its much greater military power. And so on.

    This isn't to say that objective comparisons aren't possible; just that you need to construct them carefully, making sure that your own prejudices and your natural feelings of superiority aren't clouding your judgement.
    posted by russilwvong at 11:12 PM on October 5, 2006

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